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Jonathan Knutson, Forum Communications Co., Published October 30 2010

Turkeys a minor factor in North Dakota’s leading agricultural industry

RUGBY, N.D. – John Lovcik laughs when asked how he got into the turkey business.

“I saw an ad in the newspaper. It read something like, ‘Be an entrepreneur. Be your own business.’ It was for a turkey farm, and I followed up,” he says.

“It was just an opportunity to get into business for myself,” he says.

Now in his fourth year in the turkey industry, Lovcik is a partner in Pine Ridge Turkey Farm in Rugby and president of the North Dakota Turkey Federation.

In a state that leads the nation in many agricultural products, including honey, flax and canola, turkeys aren’t a major player.

North Dakota has only a dozen turkey operations, compared with about 250 in Minnesota, the nation’s leading turkey producer.

North Dakota typically raises about 1.2 million birds annually, according to the state Turkey Federation website, while the Minnesota Association of Turkey Growers say its members raised about 45 million birds last year.

In the Midwest, ground corn and soybean meal are the major components of turkey feed. Minnesota is a top producer of both corn and soybeans, which helps to explain the turkey industry’s prominence in the state.

Corn and soybean production have been rising steadily in North Dakota, which would seem to bode well for the state’s turkey industry.

North Dakota last year harvested 200.1 million bushels of corn, roughly double the amount a decade earlier.

Lovcik – who stresses that he doesn’t have all the answers after his relatively short time in the business – is uncertain whether North Dakota’s turkey industry is due for a growth spurt.

North Dakota doesn’t have a turkey processing plant, so most birds must be sent to Minnesota plants, he notes.

Birds from Pine Ridge Turkey Farm go to the Northern Pride plant in Thief River Falls, Minn. Northern Pride is a growers cooperative.

High capital costs in establishing new turkey plants also would seem to work against a big expansion of North Dakota’s turkey industry, he says.

A big career change

Before entering the turkey business, Lovcik was public works manager for the city of Rolla, N.D. Before the public works position, he managed the Cenex station in Rolla.

Pine Ridge Turkey Farm – there are pine trees on a ridge around the farm house – was started in the 1970s. It currently has several partners, including Lovcik, who’s in the process of buying out the other partners.

Lovcik and his wife, Kim, and three children live on the farm and do the daily work.

The Lovciks also own and operate the Dairy Queen in Rugby, N.D.

“Things can get pretty busy for us. But that’s the way we like it,” John Lovcik says.

Three times a year, Pine Ridge Turkey Farm gets a batch of about 36,000 newly born turkeys from a company in Willmar, Minn.

The Rugby turkey farm keeps each batch of birds for about 17 weeks before selling them.

Lovcik tries to sell his light hens at 16 to 18 pounds each and his heavy hens at 20 to 23 pounds each.

Feed conversion, or the amount of feed needed to add weight to a turkey, is crucial.

“Sometimes you can make more money off a small bird than a bigger one,” given the greater cost of feeding a bigger bird, he says.

No matter how carefully the Lovciks tend to their turkeys, some losses are inevitable.

A loss rate of about 8 percent is said to be standard, Lovcik says.

“We don’t want to get that high. We’re in that 6½ to 7 percent range,” he says.

Industry outlook improving

Lovcik says Pine Ridge Turkey Farm is doing OK financially, though the U.S. livestock industry in general has struggled during the nationwide recession. He says he and his family were helped because they joined a long-established turkey operation, rather than starting one from scratch.

“If it had just been me going into it, it would have been a whole different story,” he says.

U.S. turkey production declined in 2009, allowing stocks to fall and putting upward pressure on prices this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

Steve Olson, executive director of the Buffalo, Minn.-based Minnesota Association of Turkey Growers, says the past few years generally were “below break even” for producers in his state and nationwide.

But the outlook has improved this year, in part because some retailers sold turkey at very low prices last Thanksgiving, reducing the number of turkeys in cold storage, Olson says.

One advantage for turkey meat, especially during a recession, is that it’s “generally cheaper than some of your other meats,” Lovcik says.

Changing consumer tastes

U.S. turkey consumption per capita has more than doubled in the past four decades, rising from 8 pounds per capita in 1970 to 17.6 pounds per capita in 2008, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Chicken is America’s leading meat of choice (annual per-capita consumption of 83.5 pounds), followed by beef (62.8 pounds) and pork (49.5 pounds), with turkey fourth.

About half of the turkey consumed in 1970 was during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Only 29 percent of the turkey consumed in 2008 was during the holidays.

“That’s really the message we (the turkey industry) are trying to get out, that turkey isn’t just for Thanksgiving anymore,” Lovcik says.

“We’re trying to stress turkey’s nutritional aspects and the diversification” of uses for turkey, he says.

Jonathan Knutson writes for AgWeek